CWD may prey on hunt season

May 5, 2002 The Denver Post by Steve Raabe
Chronic wasting disease could pose a significant threat this fall to Colorado's $ 599 million elk- and deer-hunting industry.

Hunters and the economic boost they bring could be driven away by the infectious wildlife disease, said government officials and business owners across Colorado.

'It's a big concern,' said Sharon Day, town manager in Meeker, where hunting is the community's major economic generator. 'This could impact a lot of people here.' Even as Colorado officials work to limit outbreaks of chronic wasting disease, rural communities in northwestern Colorado are girding for a possible downturn in hunting this fall.

A reduction in hunting could devastate some areas where spending by hunters accounts for the bulk of sales-tax revenues.

'I'd say the economic impact in Colorado will be huge,' said Bruce Wilson, a former hunting outfitter and current economic-development consultant to the town of Walden in northern Colorado. 'I'm painting a pretty bleak picture of it, but that's the reality as I see it.'

The Colorado Division of Wildlife estimates that the hunting of wild deer and elk pumped $ 599 million into Colorado's economy last year. Elk and deer ranching - which has been hit particularly hard by chronic wasting disease - adds another $ 19 million in economic impact.

Northwestern Colorado is highly susceptible to disruptions in hunting because the area's other major industry - oil and gas production - is volatile and an undependable source of income and taxes.

An estimated 63 percent of sales tax collected in Rio Blanco County is generated by hunter spending. In northern Colorado's Jackson County, hunting accounts for 59 percent of sales-tax collections.

'A lot of people around here really live and die off the hunting business,' Rio Blanco County Commissioner Kim Cook said. 'It's a concern because there are just too many unanswered questions.'

Much of the potential economic fallout depends on how far the disease may spread by the fall hunting season, what steps regulators take to control the outbreak, and the extent to which carcass-testing requirements are imposed on hunters.

Chronic wasting disease makes infected deer and elk grow thin and die as it eats microscopic holes in the animals' brains. The disease is incurable and always fatal.

CWD is related to mad cow disease, which decimated the British beef industry during a major outbreak last year. A human variant of mad cow disease has been blamed for the deaths of 120 Europeans.

There is no evidence that chronic wasting disease can be transmitted to humans, either through direct contact or by eating meat from infected animals.

Yet officials worry that underlying fears about the disease's contagious nature may drive away hunters and tourists from Colorado.

'Confusion - that's the word I use to sum it up,' said Steve Hein, a big-game meat processor and owner of Steve's Meat Market Inc. in Arvada.

'It's not what we know about CWD,' he said. 'It's what we don't know that's scaring everybody, because we don't know very much.'

Game processing is a $ 9.8 million industry in Colorado, with taxidermy accounting for an additional $ 18.5 million in sales.

Hein said that last year he stopped accepting deer and elk from northeastern Colorado, where chronic wasting disease has existed in wild game for decades. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has declared the northeastern quadrant of Colorado an 'endemic' area for the disease.

Hein said he recently thought about retiring and selling the processing business, perhaps to his children. But he scuttled the plan after reports of the disease's spread.

'I've groomed this for 18 seasons into a very good business,' he said. 'But I don't want to sell it to anyone if the entire state becomes an endemic area.'

State wildlife officials have slaughtered hundreds of deer and elk on the Western Slope in an attempt to slow the disease's spread and to determine the number of infected animals. The only effective diagnostic test requires that the game be killed.

So far, eight wild mule deer in western Colorado - all near an elk ranch where the first cases were found - have been discovered with the disease. Six elk from captive ranch operations in North Park and the San Luis Valley also have been infected.

Melinda Parker, a Meeker motel and restaurant owner, said hunting revenues were disappointing last year after the terrorist attacks, and because Colorado increased the cost of hunting licenses.

This year, Colorado has reduced the cost of cow elk licenses in an effort to attract hunters and reduce large elk populations.

'I was expecting a good season this fall, but now I just don't know,' Parker said. 'If the hunters don't come back, it's going to be devastating to our economy.'

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